MRO Magazine

Perfect Ride

It is still dark at 0500 hours on Sainte-Hlne Island in the middle of the Saint-Lawrence River just across from Montreal's Old Port. The Jacques Cartier bridge looms over maintenance workers fanning...


Machinery and Equipment Maintenance

February 1, 2007
By Carroll Mccormick

It is still dark at 0500 hours on Sainte-Hlne Island in the middle of the Saint-Lawrence River just across from Montreal’s Old Port. The Jacques Cartier bridge looms over maintenance workers fanning out for their daily inspection of the La Ronde theme park.

As always, their job is to check every connection, every bolt and every inch of the park’s 39 amusement rides. Four-and-a-half hours later, tours completed, they sign off their maintenance inspection sheets. Only then do the operators take over the rides, and La Ronde opens its gates to the public at 1000 h.

The care lavished on maintenance at La Ronde, a 57.3-hectare (141.6-acre) subsidiary of the U.S.-headquartered Six Flags Inc., would be the envy of many manufacturing plants.

“At the beginning of my job here I felt that we weren’t efficient,” explains Paul Voyer, La Ronde’s director of maintenance and construction, “but I began to realize that we had to make sure that there was absolutely no chance we’d forget anything, or have a mechanical or electrical failure. That is part of our criteria for maintenance. It is not an option to have a failure.

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“There are a lot of contingencies that are not done in other maintenance [plants] that we emphasize more strongly. To give you an example, we inspect every inch of the rides every day, even though there isn’t going to be a change in one day. It is a Six Flags procedure and it is followed by the book.”

There is no better place from which to appreciate the need for this utter intolerance for failure — to which La Ronde’s safety record of no injuries or deaths since 1967 can be attributed — than from the front seat of one of its roller coasters.

These roller coasters live up to their menacing names, such as Vampire and its brain-scrambling corkscrews; Goliath and its eye-popping 52-metre (171-ft) near-vertical drop and 110 km/h (68 mph) speeds; and Monster, with its long swooping curves through a classic creation of wood and cable.

The illusion of imminent disaster is perfect; I force myself to field-test these symbols of my commitment to searching out maintenance stories, no matter the risk to life and limb, 27 times over two days, by muttering over and over with the conviction of a monk that nothing, but nothing, could be allowed to go wrong.

I was right. For example, every roller coaster is run five times each morning and mechanics use infra-red guns to measure the temperature of each train’s many wheels. If they find one that is overheating, they dismantle it to find out why. After certain repairs they load the trains with dummies and shoot them around a few times to replicate live loads on the equipment.

Going by the book

The Six Flags procedures are followed by the book. For example, says Voyer, “Every connection point has a pin or cotter pin. All these cotter pins have to be inspected every day. The mechanic inspects them for wear — wear on the connection pin. He visually inspects all welds with, for example, binoculars, and checks all the electrical connections end-to-end.”

To become a certified ride inspector for the start-up of a specific ride requires a six-month apprenticeship and written tests. There are also three higher grades of inspectors: those qualified to repair rides; those qualified to supervise someone who is qualified to repair rides; and master technician, who instructs on ways to do repairs, develop teams, and certify inspectors.

Inspectors use some neat tricks to avoid complacency. For example, says Voyer, “The inspector has four or five pairs of sunglasses, each in a different shade. Every day he changes his sunglasses to get a different view. They allow him to see things he may not have seen the day before.”

Thousands of bolts hold together the sections of fat tubes that support the rides. To make sure the inspectors do not imagine seeing bolts that are missing, they count the bolts on each side of each flange, so each bolt is actually being counted twice. “It is a way to know you are seeing everything,” Voyer says.

Tricks of the trade

Other little tricks help keep the inspectors on their toes. For example, says Voyer, “Sometimes a ride manager will remove a bolt and wait for it to show up on the inspection sheet. If the mechanic finds the problem, he gets a ‘bravo’. If not, he gets in trouble.”

There are extensive safety systems in the rides, and the newer rides have diagnostic programs that alert operators of problems. Voyer illustrates: “The manufacturers have put very strict contingencies in their designs; for example, if you need to detect where the train is for security, there are two detectors that feed into two separate computers. If one sees the train and the other does not, the ride will stop. There are a lot of contingencies put in the ride to see if anything is operating outside of normal tolerances, such as the train slowing down too much.”

Thick manuals describe in great detail scheduled maintenance tasks, done during the hectic May-to-October operating season and during the off season. “We do not take calculated risks here,” Voyer says. “It is basically the same approach as aircraft. We have the same [concept of] time usage; for example, after the ride is run 500 hours you have to recheck the torque on every bolt, and check the bearings after 1,000 hours. If you don’t do it, the manufacturer is not responsible. When the ride hits its [limit of] hours of operation, it is non-negotiable. You take it apart and do maintenance.”

A $4-million annual maintenance budget supports a crew of 78, which includes mechanics, electromechanics, welders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and even an upholsterer.

Maintenance crews pull 10-hour shifts: 0500 h to 1500 h and 1500 h to 0100 h. They receive work orders to do special maintenance and fill out a ride log. “The operator signs off on the checklist every morning that every bearing is in good condition, that every connection point that could come undone and cause the carriage to separate from the ride is checked,” says Voyer.

“During the inspections, if inspectors find a problem, there is a section on the inspection sheet to report if they did a repair, or if there is a repair that needs to be done. All the inspection sheets are brought every morning to the maintenance department, work orders are written and the sheets are stored.”

CMMS yet to come

There is no computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), but the department would like to have one. “We are working on acquiring a CMMS. It gives you a vision of your maintenance that you can’t see on paper. Every year we have projects and millions of things to do, and it keeps getting put back. But what we have, works,” Voyer notes.

The team also relies on maintenance procedures and scheduling laid out chapter and verse in maintenance books supplied by the ride manufacturers. As well, adds maintenance supervisor Nathalie Page, “We sometimes get memos from other parks that may flag a problem area. We will immediately check our equipment for similar problems.”

On-season maintenance has some of the pedal-to-the-metal excitement of the rides themselves, but in the off-season, rides are covered and prepped for hibernation. Every year some are dismantled and brought inside a spacious shop for teardowns to the last bolt, plenty of testing and rehabilitation.

Shelving for parts is important

The pace inside the shop is more relaxed but the work is organized and thorough. “Every ride has a special racking (shelf) so when you dismantle it, every part has its place so you don’t forget anything,” Voyer explains. “When you put a train back together the shelf will be empty. This is good for worker efficiency too. Each set of racking is built according to each ride’s dismantling and re-assembly method.

“We are building the racking for Goliath [opened in 2006] now. To build this will take seven guys a month-and-a-half. We know we will use it every year for 15 to 20
years, so we know it is a good investment.”

La Ronde contracts out a tremendous amount of non-destructive testing (NDT) to Mequaltech Inc. in Montreal to locate cracks in metal and to test welds using several techniques: visual, ultrasonic, magnetic particle, liquid penetration and X-ray.

“An independent outside contractor is in here almost all the time doing NDT. We NDT every connection point three times a year. If we find a crack, the ride is shut down until the problem is fixed and re-NDT’d,” says Voyer.

Page adds, “The Mequaltech technician has certain rides on which he has to do magnetic tests, as per the manufacturer. Some are done once a year, others every two years. Some tests are on-site [on the ride site]; some in the shop after the rides have been disassembled. If they reveal that a weld needs to be re-done, the welder will do it, then the piece will be re-tested immediately afterward.”

“Priority number one in an amusement park,” Voyer concludes, “is safety.”

Carroll McCormick is the senior contributing editor for Machinery & Equipment MRO. He is based in Montreal and can be reached at carrollm@citenet.net.